Mohammed sometimes dictated his thoughts to his secretary, Zayd, but when he spoke in public no one wrote down what he said. Instead, his listeners learned his speeches by heart and mistakes crept in, as they usually do. Only a short time after Mohammed’s death people were repeating his sayings in quite different ways.
If Mohammed had been anyone else, this would not really have mattered. It would have been enough to remember what he had said without bothering too much about how he had said it. But the Moslems believed that God himself had addressed them through Mohammed. Every word the prophet had spoken was therefore divine and even every pause between words. The more the different reports of his teachings multiplied, the more confused his followers became.
Mohammed’s old companions soon realized that if this confusion Were allowed to go on, Islam could easily split up into quarreling groups. Eventually, either Abu Bakr or a later head of the movement, Othman, ordered Zayd to prepare a text of Mohammed’s teachings that would be correct and complete. Gathering written and remembered fragments of his master’s words “from the ribs of palm-leaves and tablets of white stone and from the hearts of men,” Zayd brought them all together in a book. This book afterwards came to be called the Koran, meaning “the reading aloud” in Arabic. To Moslems, its contents are the very word of Allah.
Four-fifths the size of the New Testament, the Koran is made up of 114 suras, or chapters. These suras are not arranged in the order in which Mohammed first spoke them, but by length, beginning with the longest. Most of them, short and fiery, came to Mohammed during his early years of struggle in Mecca. They deal with such things as the oneness of God and man’s duties toward him. The remaining suras, spoken by the prophet in Medina when Islam was moving toward victory, are longer. They consist mainly of the laws by which Moslems are supposed to live.
The Koran is filled with stories. Most of these come straight from the Old Testament. Among the Old Testament figures most often mentioned are Adam, Noah, Abraham, Ishmael, Moses, David and Solomon. There are fewer stories and characters from the New Testament. Jesus appears in the Koran as a great prophet, the next to last in the long line that ends with the greatest of all the prophets of Allah, Mohammed.
THE FIVE PILLARS OF ISLAM
Yet nowhere in his teachings does Mohammed call himself divine. Instead of being the Son of God, as Christ is to Christians, he is God’s apostle, chosen from among all mankind to spread God’s word. Mohammed’s relationship to God is summed up in the Moslem call to prayer – “La ilaha illa-l-Lah; Muhammadun rasulu-l-Lah” which means “There is no God but Allah and Mohammed is his messenger.”
This statement is the basis of the Moslem faith and a believer’s first duty is to accept what it says with his whole heart and mind. There are four more duties he must perform. Five times a day he must turn toward Mecca and say his prayers. He must give money to the poor. He must not eat or drink anything at certain times, particularly between sunrise and sunset during the holy month of Ramadan. At least once in his lifetime, unless he is too sick or too poor, he must make a pilgrimage to Mecca. Together, these five duties are called the Five Pillars of Islam.
In addition to these religious duties, the Koran lays down a great number of rules for daily behavior. Believers must not drink wine, eat pork, or gamble. Men may have as many as four wives at a time‚ so long as they can support them and treat them all exactly the same. Divorce is not difficult, but the Koran firmly advises against it. A thief is punished by having his right hand cut off. And anyone who speaks the name of Allah, Mohammed, or any of the earlier prophets in a disrespectful way must pay for the crime with his life.
Such a person goes straight to hell, but a true believer who has followed God’s laws enjoys an everlasting reward in paradise. Hell is pictured in the Koran as a pit filled with flames, where the doomed have nothing to drink but the hot, stinking waters of a salt well and nothing to eat but a foul-smelling plant which leaves them as hungry as they were and paradise is shown as a cool mountaintop — a place utterly different from the hot valley in which the young Mohammed grew up.
In paradise, the blessed lounge about in comfortable chairs or lie on soft carpets. They drink the cold waters of the spring which bubbles in their midst, or, if they prefer, they drink their fill of precious wines. Here there are trees to give them shade, grapes and other delicious fruits to satisfy their hunger, and lovely, dark-eyed girls to keep them company. The Koran guarantees a place in paradise to every believer who dies fighting the infidels — that is, the enemies of Islam.
In the pages of the Koran, Allah is kind and loving to all who believe in him. To unbelievers he shows no mercy. His instructions to Moslems on how to deal with them are clear.
Idol worshippers are to be attacked on sight. The men are to be killed and the women and children enslaved. On the other hand, the “people of the book”- that is, Jews and Christians — are to be given a chance to accept Islam. If they refuse, however, they are to be treated as if they were pagans.
These orders amounted to a declaration of holy war, called jihad in Arabic, against unbelievers. Starting with the Battle of Badr, Mohammed not only preached jihad, but practiced it. The Moslem leaders who came after him carried on the holy war — so successfully that they created an empire larger than any the world had known up to that time. Again and again ragged desert warriors, riding camels and horses and carrying swords, spears, or bows and arrows, defeated the most powerful armies on earth. The rulers of Europe and the lands to the east could hardly believe it was happening. Yet it did happen and a number of reasons explain why.
For one thing, the Arabs’ ragged life had toughened their bodies and taught them to endure thirst, hunger, heat and other hardships. Their tribal wars had made them bold fighters and superb riders, who could cover mile after mile at a gallop and shift direction in a twinkling. Many times they defeated larger forces which had better weapons but could only move at the pace of a footsoldier.
Another reason for their success was their poverty and because they had so few possessions, they battled hard for whatever they could take by force and because they were convinced that they would go straight to paradise if they were killed, they fought more braver than their enemies, who had no such comforting belief.
THE SPREAD OF ISLAM
Not that many Arab warriors really wanted to die. Most of them were Bedouins, who had never taken religion very seriously. They were more loyal to Islam now than to their tribes, but they still preferred the good things of this life to the joys of the life to come. As a poet wrote in a poem to a Bedouin youth:
No, not for paradise did you forsake the nomad life. Rather, I think, it was your yearning after bread and dates.
Still another reason why the Arabs won so swiftly was their wise policy toward their defeated enemies. According to the Koran, the defeated were to become Moslems or be put to death, but the Arabs gave them another choice. By paying a tax in money or goods, the defeated could keep both their lives and their religions. Naturally, they almost always took this choice. Since the Arabs’ tax was usually lower than the tax they had had to pay their previous rulers, the inhabitants of more than one town in the Near East were quite satisfied with the arrangement.
Often, such people also welcomed the Arabs because they felt closer to them than to their rulers, being related to the Arabs by blood. For the Semites, in spreading outward from Arabia, had settled the surrounding lands and mingled with the people who were already there, but instead of governing themselves, they had had to submit to being ruled by foreigners. Northeast of Arabia, in Iraq, their rulers were Persians, who had originally come from India and who practised a religion of fire-worship called Zoroastrianism. The lands north and west of the peninsula belonged to the Byzantine Empire, whose Greek Christian rulers lived far away in their capital city of Byzantium, also called Constantinople, at the southeast corner of Europe. The Arabs, by contrast, were both relatives and neighbours.
As a religion and as a state, Islam spread rapidly during Mohammed’s last years, but when he died it looked as if Islam, too, would die. Many tribes withdrew their support and refused to send tribute to Medina. New prophets appeared, who claimed that their beliefs were an improvement on those of Mohammed. As head of Islam, Abu Bakr ordered his troops to reconquer the lost tribes and conquer the rest and to break up the armies which the new prophets had gathered around them. In a year of bloody fighting, Arabia was again united — this time for good.
THE SWORD OF ALLAH
The Moslem hero of these wars was a general named Khalid, nicknamed “The Sword of Allah”. When the peninsula was at peace, Khalid took a small force northeast to Iraq, to raid the forts and towns along the frontier of the Persian Empire. Meanwhile, three Arab armies marched north to invade the rich Byzantine province of Syria. These armies soon ran into trouble and Abu Bakr ordered Khalid to go to their aid. The general led his men in an historic dash across hundreds of miles of waterless desert. In Syria, he laid siege to the capital, Damascus. After six months, that great Christian city surrendered. Soon other Syrian cities fell. In 636, the Byzantine emperor sent a mighty army under his own brother to reconquer the province, but Khalid defeated it at a place called Yarmuk. A year later Jerusalem gave up and by 640 all of Syria was in Arab hands.
Abu Bakr had died in 654 and his place as caliph, or “successor” to the prophet at the head of Islam had been taken by another old friend of Mohammed, named Omar. Soon after the Battle of Yarmuk, Omar sent an army to Iraq, which was a province of Persia. Iraq quickly fell. By the end of 637, the Arabs held the entire lower half of Mesopotamia‚ the fertile land between the Euphrates and Tigris rivers where the Garden of Eden is supposed to have been located.
The Arabs had a much harder time conquering Persia itself than its province of Iraq. Unlike the Iraqis, the Persians were not Semites and they battled stubbornly in defense of their homeland and religion. In 651, however, the last emperor of the twelve-hundred-year-old Sassanid line was betrayed by one of his own countrymen and killed. In the next year the Arabs wiped out their last enemies in Persia. To the north, Arab armies invaded and occupied Byzantine Armenia.
Meanwhile, another much richer Byzantine province — Egypt, to the west of Arabia — had been seized. Control of the great seaport of Alexandria gave the Arabs an outlet to the Mediterranean Sea. In 649 they captured the Byzantine island of Cyprus and in 655 they destroyed a huge Byzantine fleet. They also pushed along the north coast of Africa as far west as Tripoli.
With the conquest of Syria, Iraq, Persia, Armenia and Egypt, the first stage of the Arab conquest ended. The second stage began a generation later and continued for half a century. To the east, Arab armies overran western Asia, conquering Afghanistan, Turkestan and what is now West Pakistan. To the west, they vanquished the Berber people of North Africa, thereby extending the power of Islam all the way to the Atlantic. In 711, a captain named Tarik boldly crossed the Strait of Gibraltar (a name which comes from the Arabic words jebel Tarik, meaning “Tarik’s Mountain”) and invaded Spain. By 732, the Arabs and their Berber allies had conquered most of Spain and a part of southern France when their advance north was stopped by a French general named Charles Martel.
So, exactly a hundred years after Mohammed’s death, the religion he founded was being practiced in southwest Europe, in North Africa, all through the Near East and into Asia almost as far east as China. The vast Arab Empire was not truly united. For some time trouble had been brewing at home — trouble which threatened to split the religion and the state of Islam.